During the news interview the reporter bumbled through one dumb question after another. The smart interviewee, sensing that he was stuck with an inexperienced journalist, just ignored the reporter’s questions and talked about whatever he wanted the public to hear. As the subject spoke, the reporter’s producer scribbled mysteriously on a yellow legal tablet.

Later, when the subject had left, the lights and camera were re-aimed at the reporter, who read a completely different set of questions from that legal pad.

Back in the news room, a video editor would replace the reporter’s original-but-stupid questions with the producer’s subsequent-but-smart ones, and the composite sequence would make the reporter look like an actual journalist instead of a dope in a network blazer.

Even if you’re a whiz at the interview process you can still use the production techniques that saved that dim reporter–techniques that are part of the expert craft of staging interviews for the camera.

Interview Types

Most video interviews fall into one of two basic types. In one, the interviewer appears on camera with the subject. In the other, the subject appears alone, seemingly making statements instead of answering questions.

Figure 1 demonstrates a big advantage of the two-person style: easy cutaways. In our example, Senator Blabb makes a bad verbal gaffe (figure 1a). In the unedited version, he’s stuck with it. But in the edited version (figure 1b), his foot is surgically removed from his mouth and the incision is hidden by a reaction cutaway of the interviewer.

Last but not least, the two-person format makes it easier to re-shape the interview by asking revised questions later and cutting them in.

The down side is that the two-person format inflates the importance of the interviewer at the expense of the subject. Not only does Barbara Walters share the screen with her subject, but her questions obviously control the tone and content of the interview, making her at least as prominent as the interviewee.

So if you need to produce a solid interview in a short time and with a maximum of built-in cutaway material, go for the two-person classic form. Otherwise, it may be better to devote your precious screen time exclusively to the subject.

A straight-ahead narrative often flows more smoothly than a back-and-forth volley of questions and answers. For this reason, you can keep it up longer without fatiguing the viewer. In addition, a narrative lends itself to voice-over, which is a great way to avoid the dullness of talking heads.

The weaknesses of the one-person interview mirror the strengths of the two-person style. For one thing, cutaways and angle changes are harder to obtain because there’s only one person to videotape.

More importantly, an apparently spontaneous narrative can be time consuming to obtain because you must prompt the subject to deliver material in a form that makes sense without audible questions.

Even with this drawback, the questionless interview is so powerful that it’s become almost the standard format for documentary programs.

Ready, Get Set

Whichever approach you choose, the next step is to set up the interview; and that means preparing the subject (interviewee), the interviewer (if used), the camera, the microphone(s), the lights, and the background.

With the subject, the critical decision is image size and the best choice depends on the behavior of the interviewee. The closeup shown in figure 2a is a good starting point–tight enough for a feeling of intimacy without claustrophobia.

But some interviewees are wigglers: they move back and forth and side to side as they talk, making them hard to keep well-framed. For these people, you may wish to back off to the head and shoulders closeup shown in figure 2b. In this more spacious frame the subject’s movement is less distracting.

Other people, however, move their hands constantly as they talk and nothing is more irritating than fugitive digits flying in and out of the frame, as you can see from figure 2c. For hand waggers you should either back off further to a waist shot or move in until the hands are always below the frame line. If a closeup won’t do the trick, a tight closeup will serve (figure 2d). If you do use a tight closeup remember that you can cut off a person’s hair and even forehead, but you must keep the frame line below the chin (figure 2e).

In any shot size, don’t have subjects look directly at the lens unless they’re addressing the viewer. Position the interviewer so that looking at him aims the subject’s gaze horizontally and about fifteen degrees off the lens axis.

In a two-person interview, the shots of the reporter provide cutaways for use in editing. Figure 3a shoots over the subject’s shoulder. Figure 3b shows the reverse angle with the interviewer’s mouth hidden for the same reason. It’s also a good idea to get all-purpose cover footage by shooting closeup reaction shots of the interviewer, as in figure 3c.

With the principals in place you need to set your camera and the rule here is: generally, the farther away the better. For one thing, distance requires telephoto lens settings for closeups and telephoto shots are more flattering to faces.

Secondly, the more distant the camera is the less it intrudes on the interview. Also, a distant lens is easier to shield from lighting flares.

In setting camera height, remember that a low angle (shooting upward) makes the subject look more imposing and powerful, while a down-looking camera weakens the subject. In general, placing the lens just slightly below the subject’s eye level creates a pleasing effect.

A distant camera is impractical, however, if you’re stuck with your camera’s built-in microphone. Sound quality degenerates so quickly with distance that you need to get the mike as close to your subject as possible. To keep the camera back and mike forward, consider a separate microphone (if your camcorder has an input jack for it). Clip-on lapel mikes, wired or wireless, work fine and cost very little nowadays.

For a two-person interview where quality matters, you have two options: spring for two mikes and a production mixer to balance their levels, or else place a table or boom mike between subject and interviewer. Whatever miking system you use be sure to wear headphones to monitor sound quality.

Simple lighting schemes are worth a whole article to themselves (see "Lighting–What the Pros Know," in the September 1997 issue of Videomaker). Here, the key point is comfort of the subject. Light sparingly to avoid heating up the area and keep the lights out of the subject’s eyes.

Finally, don’t forget the background behind the subject and (if on-camera) the interviewer. In a studio, a roll of seamless paper makes a self-effacing backdrop. On location, move the subject, the props and furniture, or all three as needed to simplify the visuals.

What’s Your Angle?

When it comes to the actual taping the key to success is multiple angles to use as cutaways, to conceal the cuts in the interview footage.

With a two-person interview the reporter provides the cutaways–dead simple if you have the luxury of a second camcorder trained on the interviewer. For a one-camera shoot:

  • Tape the interviewee, ensuring that his or her mike picks up the questions too (their quality doesn’t matter).
  • After the interview, set up and light for the reporter, then pop the interview tape into a VCR placed where the reporter but not the camera can see it. With a fresh tape in the camcorder, play back the interview tape while the interviewer listens to his or her questions and repeats them for the camera, making (ahem) small improvements on the fly.

With the one-person interview, varied angles are simultaneously more important and more difficult to achieve. You can avoid them altogether if you plan to use much of the interview as off-camera narration.

If you do need to cut two shots of the subject together, try to change both the image size (e.g. medium shot to closeup) and camera position (say, front angle to profile). How do you get the two shots? As a rule, every time you change topics (or the subject makes a goof) pause and alter your camera setup, knowing you’ll later make an edit at this point.

And if you need an edit without an angle change, use a digital effect like a wipe or flip to signal a frank and open jump in the continuity. (Avoid dissolves between very similar shots because they look peculiar.)

So there’s the gist of what every field producer knows about the craft of video interviews. As for the art … well, that’s entirely your department.

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